We get to the Institute of Public Affairs’ 70th birthday bash early — before the protesters outside have really got themselves sorted. There are some scraggly looking youngsters with banners suggesting we should put Murdoch on trial rather than Assange. One man, clad in a red cape and Murdoch mask adorned with devil horns, is heckling people as they enter the National Gallery of Victoria. “Don’t worry sir,” he tells a besuited bloke, “we’ll make sure your phone is hacked for you.”

It all seems pretty tame, but the temperature rises when Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle’s car shows up. Unimpressed by Doyle’s decision to come out in support of gay marriage only days ago, the anti-capitalist crowd blocks his car door, jumps on his bonnet and deflates his tyres. Around 20 police officers charge in and ring fence the car so Doyle can escape.

Inside is the real disaster zone: the “free” drinks don’t start until 6.30pm! That’ll teach us for buying the “tightarse tickets” ($495 each) instead of the $995 option which includes pre-drinks with chairman Rupert. We retreat in disarray to a comfy bench in front of the water wall, which turns out to be an excellent seating option for the show which is about to start.

Suddenly there’s a breakthrough: Gina’s put her card on the bar or something, and the grog starts flowing, a nice smooth bubbly with a good yeasty flavour and no after-taste. The attractions of free market ideology start to grow on me. I try to avoid thinking about how the grand water wall was built by an evil government rather than free enterprise, and enjoy the bubbly.

People appear with little nibblies; mini pies, arancini balls, some sort of crunchy thing with beetroot. Finally it all starts; we have crap seats and the entrée is a little uninspiring, but the crowd is a little like a rock concert; in a good mood for the warm up acts but keen to get to the main event.

For the entrée we have some IPA folk: Rod Kemp and John Roskam celebrating their defeat of the recent media legislation (much clapping) and name checking the audience. We have Rupert, Tony, and Gina, Cardinal Pell, Hugh Morgan, about half the Coalition both state and federal. This includes two “long-serving members”: Victorian premier Denis Napthine and federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. If the stained glass ceiling collapses again we’re going to put the cause of conservatism back a generation …

The IPA may be 70, Roskam proclaimed, but some things don’t change: “We fought for freedom then and we fight for freedom now. We needed money then and we need money now too … The IPA exists only because of our donors and supporters.”

Not that they’re doing too badly. The IPA’s membership, Roskam announces, has doubled in the past year; it’s ballooned by 500% over five years. Hitting Wayne Swan where it hurts, he notes the think tank is now in surplus — unlike the government.

His other stat — that IPA staffers have made 157 TV appearances and 446 radio appearances over the past year — wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s tuned into Q&A or The Drum.

“If the stained glass ceiling collapses again we’re going to put the cause of conservatism back a generation …”

Master of Ceremonies Andrew Bolt then struts to the stage. The troublemakers outside, he says, may just be ratty students but they are emblematic of a “deep strain of censoriousness” that runs through the veins of this country.

“It’s hard to overestimate the impact of the IPA,” Bolt said. “If the ABC did not have the IPA’s phone number, I wonder whether it would be searching till this day for that one conservative voice it never manages to find.”

Denis Napthine gives a chat about all the government spending he’s going to do, but it’s sensible stuff like more work on the ports.

Abbott gives a fairly reasonable piece from notes about the history of freedom starting with the garden of Eden and leading to the American revolution. He’s a little ambiguous about the Garden of Eden: is he for or against?  With Cardinal Pell in the front row he needs to watch his theology. Then there’s the list of great stuff he’s going to do; privatise Medibank, fire Tim Flannery, neuter the NBN … wild clapping.

Finally comes an intermission, and a chance to check out the crowd. The vast majority of folks are elderly Caucasian males. There is a sea of dark suits topped with grey balding heads as far as the eye can see. Possibly 20% of the guests are female, and maybe 5% Asian. We also have some bankers, but I’m not sure if they’re fully committed to the cause or simply working the room for clients. Finally, some Eastern Bloc immigrants with a profound grudge against communism.

The dinner isn’t bad; but it isn’t El Bulli either. There’s cold-pressed chicken with marinated cucumber and “chicken chips”, and char-grilled beef with “textures of broccoli”, Dutch carrots (in Bolt’s honour presumably) and grain mustard jus.

Then the big event: Murdoch speaks.

He’s annoyingly good. He goes 20 minutes without notes, and he’s a great speaker. His basic pitch is that markets are a moral good, not just an efficient tool, and that they’re good for freedom, and that they’ve raised billions out of poverty in the last 20 years. He even credits the need for government regulation of markets, providing it’s not excessive. To give the devil his due, it’s a strong, coherent talk; he gets a standing ovation, and standing is pretty tough for some of this lot.

Of course it leaves out little details such as whether a free market for ideas really exists if one party controls, say, 70% of the print media.

Then there’s a series of IPA folks speaking, falling over themselves to fawn on the great man. Does he really buy it? It’s cringeworthy how they praise him, his family, distant relatives and all things Murdoch. Roskam is practically simpering towards the end. This must have been how the courts of kings of old worked.

There’s a long period of IPA fund raising and the great auction. The visit to the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara goes for $25,000; so does a behind the scenes tour of The Bolt Report. A visit to Fox News HQ is sold for $20,000. Curiously, the morning tea with John Howard and Tony Abbott was pulled at the last moment, with the claim that it would be worth more when Abbott is PM. I wonder what the back story was …

The hardcore moved on for a night of networking, but we were done, slinking out into the night to nurse a hangover and a lingering sense of unease. Is this really how the world works? These people believe hard, and in the echo chamber the rest of us are just blurry silent images providing a backdrop to their heroic stories.

Listen to John Roskam and Andrew Bolt’s speech:


Listen to Tony Abbott’s speech: 


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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